YouTube is rife with false info regarding climate change, a new study finds.
If you’re planning to go online and watch a few informational videos about climate change over dinner, I have some bad news: a new study reports that some scientific terms (such as ‘geoengineering’) are being dominated by conspiracy theorists. These individuals have ‘hijacked’ the terms so that searches take users to a list of almost entirely non-scientific video content.
The authors recommend that influential YouTubers, politicians, and influential individuals in popular culture work together to ensure that scientifically-accurate content reaches as many people as possible.
“Searching YouTube for climate-science and climate-engineering-related terms finds fewer than half of the videos represent mainstream scientific views,” says study author Dr. Joachim Allgaier, Senior Researcher at the RWTH Aachen University.
“It’s alarming to find that the majority of videos propagate conspiracy theories about climate science and technology.”
YouTube is a humongous platform. Almost 2 billion logged-in users visit it every month, which is roughly half the online world. Many people, including yours truly, see YouTube as a great resource for learning, and many channels produce accessible content about science, health, and technology. However, whether this content is reliable or not is a whole different discussion.
Allgaier wanted to know the quality of the information users find when searching for climate change and climate modification — it turns out much of it is complete baloney.
“So far, research has focused on the most-watched videos, checking their scientific accuracy, but this doesn’t tell us what an average internet user will find, as the results are influenced by previous search and watch histories,” reports Allgaier. “To combat this, I used the anonymization tool TOR to avoid personalization of the results.”
Allgier searched for ten climate change-related search terms and analyzed 200 of the videos YouTube showed him (these videos all treated climate change and climate modification topics). Most of these videos go directly against the worldwide scientific consensus, as detailed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he reports.
Many of these videos propagated the chemtrail conspiracy theory, Allgeier explains. In broad lines, chemtrailers believe that the condensation trails airplanes generate are purposefully laced with harmful substances to modify the weather, control human populations, or to carry out biological and chemical warfare. I don’t think it needs to be said, but there is no evidence to support this theory.
Worryingly, however, Allgaier found that these theorists have taken over some scientific terms by mixing them into their content. Chemtrailers, he explains, explicitly advise their followers to use scientific terms in their videos to make them seem more reliable.
“Within the scientific community, ‘geoengineering’ describes technology with the potential to deal with the serious consequences of climate change, if we don’t manage to reduce greenhouse gases successfully. For example, greenhouse gas removal, solar radiation management or massive forestation to absorb carbon dioxide,” explains Allgaier.
“However, people searching for ‘geoengineering’ or ‘climate modification’ on YouTube won’t find any information on these topics in the way they are discussed by scientists and engineers. Instead, searching for these terms results in videos that leave users exposed to entirely non-scientific video content.”
Some of the conspiracy videos Allgaier found were monetized via adverts or through the sale of merchandise with conspiracy-theory motives. This made him question whether YouTube’s search algorithms help direct traffic towards this ‘dubious’ content. The way these algorithms work “is not very transparent,” he says, arguing that “YouTube should take responsibility to ensure its users will find high-quality information if they search for scientific and biomedical terms, instead of being exposed to doubtful conspiracy videos.”
Allgaier suggests that scientists and science communicators should seriously consider YouTube as a platform for sharing scientific information.
“YouTube has an enormous reach as an information channel, and some of the popular science YouTubers are doing an excellent job at communicating complex subjects and reaching new audiences,” he explains.
“Scientists could form alliances with science-communicators, politicians and those in popular culture in order to reach out to the widest-possible audience. They should speak out publicly about their research and be transparent in order to keep established trustful relationships with citizens and society.”
The paper “Science and Environmental Communication via Online Video: Strategically Distorted Communications on Climate Change and Climate Engineering on YouTube” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.